Is it the driver or the car?

With the first leg of the F1 season behind us, let us assess the effect of the new engines and more importantly, what we have learned as a result. There is a lot of chatter about the current crop of drivers getting lost in all the new technology, the buttons, the resets. Supposedly a current F1 pilot is using less of their given talent to actually drive the car and somehow it is the car doing all the work.

Nothing could be further from the truth. With these massively torqued, zero down-force race cars, the actual driving is more relevant than it has ever been. True, it is not the Jim Clark days, but was Jim Clark pulling 3.5 G’s on a corner entry to exit? Or managing a sophisticated on-board computer while still setting up a pass and keeping an eye on the rearview mirrors? The talent and skill of a driver is still vital to a winning racecar. And what is becoming quite clear this season is that the right rac ecar is also vital to create a winning driver.

Kimi & Seb

Let’s look at, or rather look for, two World Champions to make our point. I know a super-fast fella named Kimi Raikkonen, one that does not care about politics, tells his bosses to shut up and let him drive, that so far this season has not shown up for a Grand Prix. Even more confounding, his friend, you know the one, young guy, curly blond hair, comes from a little town called Heppenheim, drives a blue and purple liveried car with a painted picture of a rodeo icon on it. Mr. Sebastian Vettel, four-time consecutive world champion has been out-qualified, out-raced, out-smiled, out every-thinged by his younger, junior teammate Daniel Ricciardo.

Two drivers we have taken for granted that will always be at the top of their game are finding themselves in the wilderness in this new era of F1. And although Sebastian Vettel has a copious amount of records and by the way so does the driver that he considers a friend outside of the F1 circus, Kimi Raikkonen, neither one is looking like they will be adding to those records anytime soon. So what gives? It’s the car, people.

I got everyone up in arms over a post titled the Great Debate in which I tried to show it is almost impossible to prove who is a better driver. Was it Michael or Senna, Steward or Clark, Mansell or Piquet, Lauda or Hunt? I explained then that some cars suit one driver over the other as was perhaps the case with Mark Webber while at Red Bull, when Adrian Newey went out of his way to design and re-design a car that suited Vettel’s driving style. Sometimes it can be a new spec tire that is a driver’s undoing, this definitely affected Felipe Massa after he had become familiar with the Bridgestone’s Potenzas. And so it goes. It will never be perfect for any driver all the time but it is in this very fact that we can see what is great and what is masquerading as great.

In the case of Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari have their most recent WDC and a brilliantly fast driver, when the car is to his liking that is. Remember Kimi’s time at Lotus? We heard lots of complaining about the steering setup. This year again Raikkonen seems to be at odds with his car. It is either the new brake-by-wire system (if you ask his team) or his driving style (if you ask Raikkonen himself) that is impeding his ability to get the most out of the car. What do you think? Is it possible that this new formula will render the Finn irrelevant this year or at least until Ferrari institute a fix? Will Kimi bounce back or will this new generation of race cars take away some of his ability to race in a competitive way?

I’m sure all drivers want their car set-up to correspond to the way they drive or what they need to feel in the car, but that is not always possible. In fact it is rarely the case that drivers get the car exactly the way they want it. One obvious exception is Vettel during the last four years, who drove a car that was specifically designed to suit him exactly, which resulted in his claiming of the ultimate prize each and every one of those years.

The German finished the 2013 season with a string of nine wins in a row and was poised to make that a record breaking ten at the start of the 2014 season. This did not happen. Winter testing was an absolute catastrophe for the RB10 and Vettel’s only showing this year has been a second place in Malaysia. He’s a four-time world champion so it must be the poorly performing car that is holding him back, right? Yes, and no. The car is affecting Vettel negatively, but his junior teammate Daniel Ricciardo seems to be doing just fine with it. Only poor team strategy (Red Bull defying the FIA in Australia lost him a podium) and botched pit stops (Malaysia) are ruining Ricciardo’s races. He makes the effort of adapting to the new cars and their intricacies look effortless. Despite Daniel’s actual points tally I think it is safe to say that he has been the only real bright spot for Red Bull up to this point of the season.

How is it that a younger, less experienced driver can comprehensively out-race a four-time world champion? If you ask Christian Horner, Red Bull’s team principal, it is because Vettel does not yet have the feeling that he likes. So are you saying Mr. Horner that the RB10 is fine, it just does not suit Seb’s style of driving?

If you consult Red Bull’s real team principal, Dr. Helmut Marko, he believes there is something wrong not with his star driver, but with the car Vettel has been using, so much so that Red Bull is building a new RB10 or that was the reports. Instead Vettel will be using his chassis from winter testing for the Spanish GP. Will this cure the world champion’s woes? Maybe. If it does, I think we can then definitively say, its the car.

It is glaringly obvious that when a driver does not feel a specific level of comfort, or as drivers like to say, a confidence in their car, a world champion’s ability can be reduced to that of an average driver. We cannot then take away this fact of the car’s importance when the opposite happens and a car is perfectly designed to be fast and to suit a driver. In this context, is Vettel really the Wünderkid everyone claims? Or is a lot of his winning ability in the car?

Gerhard Berger said last year that prior to 2013 he still rated Alonso as the best driver out there, but after the way Vettel finished the season, he felt differently, He felt Vettel had surpassed the Spaniard. And I thought, really? Adrian Newey made yet another step forward with Red Bull’s car design and Vettel ran away with it, therefore Vettel is now a better driver? It is exactly the fact that the RB9 was so superior at the end of last season that should take away from considering Vettel as the best pilot out there. Take away the car and what do you have? Fifth place at the moment, behind two Nico’s, Lewis, and Fernando.


So we’ve looked at two cases where World Champions don’t look so great when they don’t have the right car. Is that always the case? Or is it possible that a truly great World Champion still looks like a champion even when he’s in an inferior car? We need look no further than Fernando Alonso to prove this point.

Alonso’s championship winning years at Renault were well deserved and fairly straightforward. In one, Alonso drove very well and extremely consistently to claim the championship from Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn’s McLaren was faster on several occasions, however reliability played its part and while I would not credit the McLaren’s fragility as to why Alonso became champion, it certainly did play a large role in that championship.

In the year where Alonso and Michael Schumacher fought for the title which went down to the final race of the year in Brazil, again Alonso drove brilliantly and proved to everyone he had what it took to win, to be a worthy champion. But had Schumacher not incurred an engine failure while leading the race would Alonso be a double champion? I wonder.

Was it those two years that convinced me Fernando had superior driving talent to the rest of the field? No, it was not until several years after that, which included a failed year at McLaren, and a return to his former team Renault in a so-so car. It was not until Alonso wore the red overalls of Ferrari did he make clear his ability to drive an F1 car better than anyone else currently can. He did it by winning races and battling for the championship in a car that for all intents and purposes was only a midfield car in regards to its true competitiveness.

It is not until you think about how deficient in all areas his car has been for each year since Alonso has joined the famous marquee that you realize what a driver Alonso has become. As I have said before, only look at his current and past teammates to see what anyone else has been able to do with the car, nothing.

As I have also mentioned before, team principals voted Alonso Driver of the Year by a huge margin in two out of the four years where Vettel took the championship. Right now Sebastian Vettel is making the case for this opinion far better than I ever could. It is exactly because the car does not suit his driving style and he cannot drive around this problem that I feel he is not as good as most people think or all the records suggest. It is right now that Vettel’s greatness seems to be inexplicably linked to having a great car from a great designer who does great things with airflow.

Let’s take a quick look at Michael Schumacher and his early years at Ferrari. He had just come off the two year Championship run at Benetton, and in his very first year, with a car that was nowhere near the front of the grid and in fact not even equipped with the elevated nose cone that would become standard and one of the most recognizable features on a modern F1 car, Schumacher was able to challenge for podiums and won on a three occasions.

The true measure of a driver, any driver, is quite simple for me and it does not lie in wins or records although that is a common by-product of a great car, a driver’s true talent or commonly both. Nor is it what a driver can do with a well-balanced, extremely quick car because I am quite clear on what that will produce. Look only to the McLaren MP4/4, or the FW14/15c with active suspension, the Ferrari F2000 series of cars and of course the RB6 – RB9 to see that part of the equation.

The real test has always been what can a driver do with a not-so-competitive car, what can a driver do to compensate for lack of grip, front or rear end instability, and in the case of two out of the three PU’s this season, with a lack of out-right power? Fernando has been driving around these problems for several years. Kimi & Seb this season, not so much. So yes, its the car. Except when you’re such a good driver that you can make the car better than it is. Then, its the driver.

In sports there is a saying, you are only as good as your last win. Although Vettel is a seasoned winner many times over, unless he starts winning again or at the very least begins out-racing his younger teammate the criticism will continue, and not just from no-name bloggers like myself. The experts, pundits and opinion makers will start to shift their opinion, and “Was it the car or the driver?” will persist.

Will he continue to struggle or will he move past these early season difficulties? Honestly I don’t have any idea where the tea leaves will fall, but either way we will see what Red Bull’s chosen son is made of this year. We will see if it is the car or if it is the driver.

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